Tag Archives: Boris Johnson

Heard immunity: time for the media to probe a little deeper

To my knowledge, there have been no TV interviews with advertising professionals querying the communications effectiveness of the government’s Covid-19 strategy, despite the fact that it’s clear – judging by case numbers and deaths – that a significant proportion of the population is immune to the messages they’ve heard. If communicating a simple message effectively is just a matter of standing in front of a lectern and repeating a three-part slogan day after day, why do advertising agencies bother with all their expensive visuals, voiceovers and music – and research – when selling products?

We found out early on in the pandemic (from charts presented by the experts) that statistically the USA had more cases than we had, here in the UK. This must have been a huge shock. Then it occurred to some of us that maybe that was because the USA has a somewhat bigger population than the UK. It was only a matter of six weeks or so before we began to see “cases per 100,000” population figures being quoted. This was reassuring. I thought I detected the first signs of some statistical expertise being brought to bear.

And, sure enough, the charts eventually became more detailed and informative. But nowhere is there any statistical information about the effectiveness of government communications. I’m sure that behind the scenes questions such as the following are being asked, as they would be by any ad. agency worth its salt:

  • in terms of percentage measures, what levels of unprompted awareness of key safety messages (Hands – Face – Space, for instance) are being achieved?; how do they vary by demographic – age group/region/income level/etc.? how many people are fully cognisant of the lockdown rules applicable to their area?;
  • what are people’s attitudes to different messages? how many would like to see more detailed information (and of what kind)?; how has credibility been affected by events such as ministers’ infringing the rules?; what proportion of people would be happy with a stricter lockdown – and again, how do these attitudes vary by demographic? does everyone understand concepts such as ‘bubble’ and ‘Tier 4’? which of the communicators perform best in terms of getting the messages across?
  • what do we know – statistically – about how the virus is passed on?; what do those who’ve recovered have to say about how they think they caught it (some may be wrong, but patterns should emerge)?; how should such information modulate the weight, nature and targeting of government messaging?

But it seems there is very little interest amongst the media in wanting to see a mathematical measure of any of this. For communicators, these measures are the equivalent, for scientists, of developing vaccines. They should be utilised to set objectives and provide a means of making decision-makers accountable. Research results almost invariably challenge assumptions. Changes in awareness and attitude levels drive public perceptions … and actions. Advertising agencies and their marketeer clients spend over £20 billion each year, and consequently many millions on detailed measurement of these and other parameters, using the data generated to make subtle, or sometimes radical, changes to their ad. campaigns for myriad products and services.

Advertisers see the value of such statistical research in sales and profits. To my knowledge, they rarely call in scientists or politicians to advise them on how to launch a new brand or create high awareness of their product’s benefits. Many, many decades of research, both published and proprietary, inform their decisions.

We see all too clearly what is happening to people’s bodies. But what is going on in their minds?

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Labour: too many messages, too much haste, too little frequency

It’s undeniable that the media had succeeded in demonising Jeremy Corbyn in the minds of many voters, over a prolonged period, well before votes were counted in last week’s General Election. But in my view Labour created its own technical problems in the way it presented itself.

The party allowed the media to interpret its plans for the economy and society as an overnight revolution, rather than framing its aspirations within a timeframe which would be seen as more realistic. The reality of what Labour would actually have done – and when – is irrelevant: once in power, they could have turned on the after-burners or worked to a safer pace as necessary. But, persuaded by combined media forces, voters feared that the economy was about to be handed over to a Mad Max-type figure.

For instance, judging by some TV vox pops, many people accepted from the MSM that a Corbyn government would bring in a very damaging 4-day week in short order. That’s not what was said. It was a much longer-term aspiration, for working people across the whole economy. But that wasn’t made sufficiently clear, sufficiently often. The media grabbed the commitment and shook the life out of it, turning it into a pledge to force workers to spend their afternoons watching daytime TV, while the NHS collapsed. The rationale wasn’t explained anywhere near often enough by the likes of John McDonnell. Just saying it once or twice was never going to do the job. If insufficient time was available to make it clear to the audience, it shouldn’t have been mentioned.

How do I know this? I worked for over forty years in planning the media side of (often major) advertising campaigns. Sophisticated advertisers know only too well the primacy of the three most critical components of a media campaign strategy: Impact, Coverage and Frequency. The impact a campaign message delivers depends on how it is conveyed in terms of noticeability – whether it’s attention-grabbing, memorable, etc.; the coverage achieved relates to how well-targeted the specific message is, to maximise exposure to as high a proportion of the target audience as possible; and the frequency of the campaign is a measure of the opportunities-to-see (OTS or OTH for opportunities-to-hear) the message.

In the case of an election campaign, impact isn’t a problem if the policies are clearly enunciated and presented with passion; high coverage is often a given, with media eager to gobble up and regurgitate every little tidbit; but effective frequency is much harder to achieve – and usually more important than the other two components.

That’s why Boris Johnson stuck to his monotonous “Get Brexit Done” line. His victory was a triumph of frequency over coverage. In my estimation, the parties were roughly even-Steven on achieving impact and coverage via broadcast and social media. Maybe Labour put a little too much faith in social media as a way of targeting their core audiences. Where possible, Johnson shunned really in-depth interviews which might divert attention away from or dilute his single-minded message. Right from the start of the “Leave” campaign with its infamous “£350m a week” message, Tory blatant untruths and weaknesses in police re-recruitment, replacement of nurses, broken promises on housing, etc. were batted away or avoided like the plague.

The opposite was the case with Labour. Their pot-shots at Tory failings often hit home; they were good on impact, with so many passionate speeches; but, beside the multi-choice Brexit stance, the sheer fragmentation and complexity of their alternative policy messaging was such that the target audience were given too much work to do. People didn’t have the time or inclination to decipher what exactly Labour was on about. Sometimes it’s best just to keep quiet. “For The Many, Not The Few” made a good start but quite soon became subsumed to daily unexplainable promised goodies. Waving the grey costings booklet about only complicated matters still further: the man on the Clapham (or Bassetlaw) omnibus was not going to write off for a copy.

The other day, Len McCluskey, General Secretary of Unite, writing in Huff Post, talked about ” … the incontinent rush of policies which appeared to offer everything to everyone immediately, and thereby strained voter credulity as well as obscuring the party’s sense of priorities”.

Much more focus: that’s what would have won the day on the policy front. Taking the four day week as an example again, there simply wasn’t enough airspace to clarify it often enough as a longer-term aspiration. It was manna from heaven for the deliberate misinterpreters of Fleet Street. These add-ons were policies to be whispered in muted tones at Fabian Society meetings or in Facebook closed user groups. First, get into power – the great lesson taught by one Tony Blair.

A gradualist strategy wouldn’t exclude the possibility of bringing in the whole Corbyn shopping list, ultimately. But promising too much, too soon, is just a recipe for disaster. The ad. business is full of acronyms, one of its most memorable being K.I.S.S. – “Keep It Simple, Stupid”.

In the sense of keeping it simple, Labour Isn’t Working. Now where have I heard that before?


Image credit: TontBlairBasra – Patstuart – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Patstuart


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